I stand behind a line in the pavement like a twiggy blonde racehorse about to burst out of the starting gate. I’m barely school age but I feel like a champ because I’ve been running down this half a block five days a week for a long time. Or what at least feels like a long time to me.
Dad and I make eye contact and he smiles, eyes twinkling like Santa. I see dad put the key in the ignition and the engine wakes up sounding like an irritated adult in need of a coffee. And before dad can put the car in drive I’m flying down the street — running awkwardly, ineffectively, with every part of my body the way children my age so often do.
I whip my head back around to see the car getting closer and I laugh and try to force my legs to run a little farther. Dad sneaks up a little more, and I can see him smiling like he does every day when I race him. “I’m catching up!” he says. But I’m just too fast and manage to hold onto first place.
I run past our next-door neighbor’s house who has a rhododendron forest instead of grass that I’m not supposed to play in. (I still do sometimes; all of the neighborhood kids do. The adults just don’t understand the play-potential that would be wasted if we didn’t.) I run past one of my friend’s houses and the tree we always climb. I run past the last house on the street; it feels so far away from my house even though it’s less than half a block. And I come to a stop right as I reach the end of our street, just as dad pulls up behind in second place. I’ve won again.
(I never suspect that maybe he lets me win.)
“Bye, Kelsey. You have a good day now. Love you!” Dad says, as he pulls the car onto the street.
“Bye, Daddy! I love you! Have a good day at work!” I’m jumping up and down, waving as hard as I can like a fan trying to elicit an encore. “Bye, Daddy! Have a good day at work! Bye! Bye, Daddy!” Dad sticks his hand out the window and briefly waves back at me, flashing me one last quick grin. “Bye,” I whisper one last time as I watch the car drive out of sight.
“I’m confused,” I say and dad puts the book down for a moment. We’re sitting on the couch in the living room. We always have a chapter book that we’re slowly working through together, and lately we’ve been reading through the Anne of Green Gables series. “Why is Anne wearing the green dress?”
“Because Gilbert likes it,” dad says, repeating what the book just said.
I feel like he’s saying nonsense. I have no idea what wearing a pretty green dress could possibly have to do with Gilbert Bylthe.
“Anne likes Gilbert,” dad says by way of explanation.
Has dad not been paying any attention to this entire series? Gilbert called her carrots! Okay, so we’ve finally gotten to the point of sort of forgiving Gilbert and deciding that he isn’t so awful but like him? No, no one is at the point of liking him yet.
Dad tries to explain further but I don’t believe him.
Dad keeps reading. When it turns out that Anne does in fact like Gilbert, I’m shocked. It feels like the biggest plot surprise in the entire history of literature. Dad looks amused but I’m not sure why as I rant about the utter confusion and stupidity surrounding this sudden plot development.
“What are the girl toys and boy toys today?” dad asks into the speaker at the McDonald’s drive through. The employee answers, the speaker makes it hard to understand even though it’s kind of loud. Dad turns to me, “Do you want a Barbie or a Hot Wheel with your Happy Meal?”
“Uh, a Hot Wheel!” I say. After he’s done ordering I ask, “Hey, dad? Why are they called boy toys and girl toys?”
“Some people are weird about toys,” he says pulling around the corner. “They think cars are only for boys and dolls are only for girls. But girls can play with cars and boys can play with dolls. They’re just toys. They’re for kids. So you can have whatever toy you want.”
Dad doesn’t know it but it’s as if the world (or at least the boy aisle at the toy store) has opened up to me.
“My shoe laces are glowing!” I nearly yell in dad’s ear. We’re on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland. I’m ten and this is the first time I’ve been to Disneyland; dad’s first time, too. And this is the very first ride of our trip.
I’d expected Disneyland to be like the rides and attractions at the fair with the addition of Mickey Mouse and a beautiful princess castle. But the Peter Pan ride is breathtaking. It’s like we’re in the movie! It’s like we’re flying right over Neverland!
And then I notice the lighting is making our white clothing glow. “My shoe laces are glowing!” It’s maybe even more exciting than seeing Peter Pan and Captain Hook. “Dad, your shirt is glowing too!”
“I know!” he says with a laugh.
“Look! Dad, look! It’s Peter Pan!”
“I know! I see!” he says smiling. He looks happy. He always looks happy when I’m excited.
Dad and I sit in Starbucks. It’s early March so it’s still pretty cold out in the mornings. I’m in middle school and I’m drinking a vanilla steamer because coffee is gross and bitter. Besides, I’m a morning person like dad, so I don’t need the caffeine.
“Happy birthday!” dad says as he hands me my non-coffee and a brown paper Starbucks bag. I pull a coffee-brown bear dressed like a barista out from behind the tissue paper. I’ve always loved teddy bears.
We sit and talk as we sip our warm drinks as everyone else is yawning, stretching, and rubbing the last crusty bits of sleep out of their eyes. This is how birthdays are supposed to start; this is how mine always start. Dad’s been taking me to get a special non-coffee drink on the morning of my birthday for as long as I can remember.
A morning date with dad. A present just from him. The smell of freshly ground coffee beans. This is how birthdays start.
“Who gave you flowers?” a friend asks.
“My dad,” I say sheepishly. When I was little I did ballet and it was expected that parents would give their little dancers flowers after they’re performance, and I’m not sure my dad has realized that same rule doesn’t apply to everything else.
I’m fourteen and I was just in a church play and I only had a handful of lines, but he bought me a bouquet as if I was the title lead.
“Aw, that’s sweet,” my friend says.
I smile, feeling awkward and a little embarrassed. I don’t like standing out and walking around with a bouquet makes feel less invisible that I’d care to be, but despite the embarrassment I love that I stand out as the teen who has an encouraging dad. The truth is that if I didn’t get flowers, I’d miss them. Flowers have become a ritual, thanks to dad.
I’ve been gone for three and a half months. I spent the summer after high school volunteering abroad. And I’m home. I’ve missed home so much.
As I walk into my bedroom and notice that my bed is made, which I know is thanks to my dad. (Making my bed is not high on my list of priorities.) And there’s a tiny card in the center of my bed, and when I open it up in simply reads:
Welcome home! I missed you.
He has no idea how much it means to me. How much I feel welcomed and home now. He has no idea how his little sweet, thoughtful gestures aren’t just nice, for me, they are home.
“Now let’s do a picture with Ian and his parents,” the photographer says. My now-husband, as of a matter of minutes before, poses with his mom and dad for a couple of photographs. “Okay, good. Now one with Kelsey and her mom.” Not parents. No dad. Only mom.
Mom and I stand together. I feel a sharp twinge in my chest that I breathe my way through.
Several people had suggested that I could light a candle in honor of my dad at the wedding but I knew I didn’t need it. I don’t need it. Yes, I’m standing here in my wedding dress with a new gold ring on my finger. Yes, I’m happy and overwhelmed and ecstatic. But I don’t need a candle to notice that my dad isn’t here; there’s no way I could ever forget.
I take a private moment of silence as everyone poses and smiles and the photographer continues clicking away. I take a moment to whisper deep inside of me: Daddy, I miss you.